Let me preface this article on a can-be-contentious topic by saying this: Everything about feeding and taking care of a baby is hard, full stop. Formula feeding is hard. Exclusive pumping is hard. Breastfeeding is hard. It’s even harder when people become militant that one way is better, more righteous, harder, more sacrificial, or more loving than another. If anyone deserves judgment, it’s not the parent who chooses to feed their child, but the systems in our country doing the bare minimum to support parents and families.
A month or two after returning to school from maternity leave, I convinced my sister-in-law Sara, who has a PhD in synthetic biology, to abandon her cutting-edge experiments for an afternoon to come help us judge our yearly science fair.
A few hours in, I knew I had to pump.
But I realized if I were gone for the half an hour it would take me to pump, I’d leave my beautiful Italian sister-in-law vulnerable to a barrage of gifted students’ sweet but invasive questioning (“Are you a supermodel?” “Do you make your own pasta?” “How do you say ‘Who had the worst project?’ in Italian?”).
“Do you want to come with me?” I asked her. I’d lost any prudishness about my body after having a baby and figured I’d at least offer. Plus, we’d known each other long enough to know she wouldn’t feel pressured to accept. Whether she wanted to come for moral support or was grateful for the escape, I’m not sure, but she followed me as I:
- Gathered my pump, flanges, tubing, milk bags, Sharpie, and two empty bottles
- Walked down to the grade-level principal’s office
- Poked my head in each of the leaders’ offices until I found someone still at school
- Waited until he was off the phone to ask him for his keys
- Unlocked the hallway keys, left the door ajar, returned the hallway keys to the administrator, and returned back to the closet
- Hooked myself up to the pump and its accoutrements
- Finally began pumping
“Isn’t this wild?” I asked her, pointing to the milk gathering in the bottom of a bottle.
“You always pump in here?” she asked, her eyes wandering around our 4×4 cell.
Suddenly, I saw what she was seeing.
A piece of green construction paper blocking the window. The one strip of fluorescent lighting buzzing overhead. A tiny photo of my son I had taped to the wall so my closet wasn’t completely depressing.
“Yeah,” I told her. “I share a classroom with a high school teacher, and between our two schedules, there wasn’t a reliable block of time for me to pump in the classroom.”
She asked more rapid-fire questions. How many times a day do I do all of this? Who watches my students? What happens if I have to wait—doesn’t that hurt?
“Yeah,” I told her. “It can hurt and soak through my clothes. Plus, it hurts my supply. My coworkers are great about helping me out, so I usually only miss a session when I can’t find someone to open the door for me.”
“You don’t have a key?” she asked, leaning toward me.
“They wouldn’t give me one,” I said, shrugging.
Her face twisted into an expression I’ve seen many times from her when someone explains a bizarre American custom or system. True to her training as a scientist, she’ll make an observation, ask questions to collect data, and then realize she’s encountered a phenomenon beyond her understanding. Her face will look kind of like this: 😳
I knew what she was saying, even if she didn’t say it.
I can’t believe this is normal.
A month after the science fair, I decided to stop breastfeeding.
I wasn’t ready. I had planned to breastfeed a full year. But I was tired. Mostly tired of never knowing whether I’d actually be able to access my pumping space or not, but also tired of parent emails wondering if I could rotate my pumping schedule so I wasn’t always missing their child’s class.
There was also the day a counselor missed the “Do Not Disturb” sign over the window and opened my closet door to a crowded hallway during a passing period full of students. But of all the offenses in my time trying to pump at school, that felt the least insulting.
I loved the ritual of breastfeeding my son. But I didn’t see any other choice.
Apart from my coworkers’ kindness and generosity, I saw no supports in place that would make teaching a career compatible with continuing to nurse.
In fact, between daycare costs that were more than our mortgage and a district policy that had me return to school as a new mother with no sick or personal days, I began to wonder if teaching was even compatible with motherhood.
Toward the end of the year, one of my closest coworkers noted that she hadn’t seen me sneaking off to pump in a while.
“Yeah, I threw in the towel,” I told her and explained why.
“Hang on—,” she said, cutting me off. “They wouldn’t give you your own KEY?!”
I thought she was going to combust with mom rage.
She flew over to her computer and pulled up the U.S. Department of Labor’s rights for nursing mothers. After scanning it for a moment, she read out loud to me the specification that the pumping location “must be available when the employee needs it in order to meet the statutory requirement.”
“You can sue, you know,” she said. I had already decided to leave the district at this point (more about that here), and a lawsuit would have felt like poetic justice for the other wrongs I’d experienced.
But as a new mom, I didn’t have the energy. In the end, all I did was tell my principal (she had no idea about the key issue since she was on another campus, FYI) and the building principal so that this wouldn’t happen to any breastfeeding teachers after me.
This week is World Breastfeeding Week, and the theme for 2023 is about the impact of breastfeeding on working parents specifically.
Here are some things that anyone working in a school can do to help not only breastfeeding teachers but all parents on campus.
- Know the rights of nursing women, even if you aren’t one. If everyone in the school building knew that certain employees, whether they are nursing, disabled, have chronic illnesses, etc., have accommodations protected by federal law, all employees could have what they need to be successful (and districts could avoid lawsuits).
- Remember you’re protected when you speak up. If you (or a coworker) are not getting your federally mandated rights, tell someone—a breastfeeding consultant, a coworker, a school leader, an HR rep—right away. Your right to feed the child the way you want is more important than their perception of you being “difficult” or “demanding” or other words we use to talk about women who ask for something that should already be theirs. (Additionally, FLSA protects workers from discrimination or retaliation when they question employer practices or assert their rights.)
- Stop accepting bad policy just because it’s normal. The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. But unlike other wealthy countries, we rank very low for taking care of our people through parental leave, healthcare, education, etc. We have an obligation as citizens to examine what’s happening and ask for better.
To be clear, not every teacher I know has had this experience pumping at school. Some breastfeeding teachers I know pumped for over a year at their school with little to no issues. And I need to say that the vast majority of my school community—including my program’s administrators—supported and celebrated me as a new mom. But all you need to make you feel invisible and discouraged is one or two people who don’t understand your rights.
Pumping at school isn’t easy, but knowing your rights and planning ahead (here’s how!) will ensure it stays a smooth-as-possible experience and that you feel confident in the choice you’re making for yourself and your baby.
If your right to pump at work has been violated, you may be able to file a lawsuit under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). You can also ask questions or file a complaint in person at any U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Office or by phone using their toll-free help line at 1-866-4USWAGE. If you are deaf, hard of hearing, or have a speech disability, please dial 7-1-1 to access telecommunications relay services.